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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.
A new way of monitoring a baby’s distress during labour, called ST waveform analysis, did not improve outcomes for the baby or reduce the likelihood of a caesarean section compared to current practice. Although monitoring of babies’ heartbeats during labour is common practice in the UK, additional ST analysis is not commonly used and on the basis of this evidence probably should not be promoted for routine use yet.
The outcomes measured in this review included death of the baby before or after birth, fits and brain damage from low oxygen levels. Finding babies at risk of these rare events is important as urgent delivery may save the baby. However if there is a role for ST analysis in this, it is not yet clear and larger trials would be needed.
Why was this study needed?
Cardiotocography is a technology that can be used to monitor a baby’s heartbeat before or during birth. Certain patterns of changes in the baby's heartbeat may signal low oxygen levels in the baby meaning that expediting delivery by caesarean section or assisted delivery using forceps may be required.
However, cardiotocography is often criticised for having a high false-positive rate, resulting in unnecessary interventions such as caesarean birth. To reduce the number of false positives the use of ST analysis alongside cardiotocography has been proposed. ST analysis uses electrocardiogram changes – a measure of the heart’s electrical activity – to detect if the baby’s heart is suitably compensating to low oxygen levels implied by the heart rate changes detected by the cardiotocograph. This is thought to improve the diagnostic accuracy of the cardiotocograph, arguably leading to better outcomes for the baby (neonatal outcomes) and avoiding unnecessary interventions.
This aim of this review was to see if adding ST analysis to cardiotocography improved neonatal outcomes and reduced the number of caesareans.
What did this study do?
This was a systematic review and meta-analysis of six randomised controlled trials that compared foetal monitoring during 26,529 labours and deliveries using cardiotocography plus ST analysis versus cardiotocography alone. Deliveries were all at term or near term with the baby in the usual head down position (cephalic presentation). All trials included training for practitioners using ST analysis. The trials were in England, Sweden, Finland, France, The Netherlands and the USA. The American trial was the largest, randomising 11,108 patients – nearly half of the total number of patients included in the review.
The main outcome was a composite measure, a combination of neonatal outcomes including: the child’s death or suffering of seizures during birth or up to 28 days after birth, the need for emergency treatment after birth (measured either as a five minute Apgar score of three or less, or the need for mechanical ventilation) or foetal metabolic acidosis (high acid blood levels, suggestive of oxygen deficiency).
This was a high quality review with a low risk of bias in the included trials.
What did it find?
- There was no difference in the composite outcome between groups – 1.5% in the cardiotocography and ST analysis group compared with 1.6% in the cardiotocography alone group (relative risk [RR] 0.90, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.74 to 1.10; from a meta-analysis of five trials).
- There were no statistically significant differences found between groups for any of the outcomes when considered individually.
- No differences were seen between groups in the incidence of caesarean delivery – 13.8% in the cardiotocography and ST analysis group compared with 14% in the cardiotocography alone group (RR 0.96, 95% CI 0.85 to 1.08; six trials).
What does current guidance say on this issue?
The 2014 NICE guideline on intrapartum care recommends that cardiotocography is only used for women with certain risk factors, such as foetal heart rate abnormalities. It states that when in use, practitioners must ensure that the focus of care remains on the woman rather than the cardiotocograph trace, and that care decisions are not made on the basis of cardiotocography findings alone.
The guideline makes no recommendation with regard to the use of ST analysis.
What are the implications?
Because of the rarity of the outcomes being measured, very large trials would be needed to show a difference between these technologies, if one existed. This review remains too small to be the final word on the use of ST analysis.
However, for now the review confirms that adding ST analysis to cardiotocography did not decrease the chance of caesarean delivery, a more frequent occurrence. As ST analysis is not currently usual practice in the NHS, the evidence-base does not support investment in the technology.
Citation and Funding
Saccone G, Schuit E, Amer-Wåhlin I, et al. Electrocardiogram ST Analysis During Labor: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Obstet Gynecol. 2016;127(1):127-35.
No funding information was provided for this study.
Medline Plus. Apgar score. Bethesda (MD): U.S. National Library of Medicine; 2014.
NICE. Intrapartum care for healthy women and babies. CG190. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2014.
Patient UK. Intrapartum Fetal Monitoring – professional reference. Leeds: EMIS Group; 2015.
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